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Stolen vehicles on the rise in Petaluma, Sonoma County

A closer look

In Petaluma, and in unincorporated Sonoma County, reports of car thefts have risen in each of the past three years.

Petaluma

2019 – 87

2020 – 106

2021 – 121

2022 – 36*

Sonoma County

2019 – 58

2020 – 73

2021 – 76

2022 – 23*

*Through March 31

Vehicle thefts have risen in each of the past three years, tracking upward in Petaluma and Sonoma County even as the coronavirus pandemic pushed some crime numbers down.

The thefts, ranging from motorcycles to box trucks to family vehicles, went up nearly 40% in Petaluma, matching a similar rise in stolen catalytic converters, where thieves cashed in on cars left unattended for longer periods during pandemic-era shutdowns.

Police cite more people working from home, and not driving regularly, as one of the factors making it easier for would-be car thieves to steal vehicles, and get away with it.

But residents have also made thefts easier in other ways.

Petaluma Police Lt. Nick McGowan said officers have responded to stolen vehicle reports after unlocked vehicles were taken, and even after residents left unoccupied cars running in order to warm them up for morning drives.

In Petaluma, vehicle thefts have risen for three-straight years, even during the shutdown-heavy months of 2020.

In 2019, police tracked 87 stolen vehicles. That number rose to 106 in 2020, before climbing to 121 in 2021. So far this year, there have been 36 reports of stolen vehicles in Petaluma, putting the city on pace for another annual increase.

Among those numbers were three classic Porsches that Petaluma police managed to recover after two years of deep detective work.

The case was viewed as one of the most significant vehicle embezzlement and stolen vehicle cases in Petaluma history, and went a long way toward the department naming lead investigator and patrol officer Garrett Sholin the city’s Officer of the Year.

Auto thefts have also risen in unincorporated Sonoma County, where the Sheriff’s Office tracked 58 reports in 2019, 73 in 2020 and 76 in 2021. With 23 through the first three months of this year, the county is likewise on pace for another year-over-year increase, according to Sheriff’s Office data.

The rising numbers fit into a complex, and often confusing array of pandemic-era crime data, which show divergent crime trends across the nation.

In California, homicides increased by 31% and aggravated assaults increased by 9% from 2019 to 2020, but robberies were down 14% and rape decreased 8% in the same time period, according to a California Policy Lab brief published last September.

And while larceny (personal property theft) decreased by 15%, there was a 20% increase in motor vehicle theft year over year, according to the paper.

Police attribute some of that increase locally to would-be catalytic converter thieves, who have found stealing the target vehicles to later access the lucrative parts to be a better alternative to deploying jacks and power saws in residential neighborhoods.

But one of the primary drivers of increased vehicle thefts is what police call the “organized component,” with teams of thieves targeting commercial trucks with tool racks or cargo bins.

“They’ll steal the trucks to get access (to other items),” Petaluma Police Lt. Nick McGowan said.

Police recommend residents lock their vehicles, park close to their homes and avoid leaving keys in their cars or leave their cars running.

For those victimized, McGowan said the key to any case is getting information quickly. Part of that, McGowan said, is that oftentimes vehicles are quickly dumped nearby.

“The may take it from Petaluma to a nearby city, remove parts off of it – wheels, components, contents – and leave it on the side of the road or abandoned somewhere,” McGowan said.

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

A closer look

In Petaluma, and in unincorporated Sonoma County, reports of car thefts have risen in each of the past three years.

Petaluma

2019 – 87

2020 – 106

2021 – 121

2022 – 36*

Sonoma County

2019 – 58

2020 – 73

2021 – 76

2022 – 23*

*Through March 31

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